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Is Washington too rich for FEMA aid? New guidelines change the rules for who gets help

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A new Federal Emergency Management Agency regulation is tightening eligibility for federal disaster recovery programs including housing assistance, healthcare, crisis counseling and unemployment assistance. And that means survivors in wealthier states like Washington might have a far more difficult time obtaining federal assistance.

The regulation, finalized in March, established additional criteria — what the agency calls “declaration factors” — to calculate whether future disaster survivors can apply for federal help.

Among other things, the new formula will take into account a state’s fiscal capacity, total taxable resources, gross domestic product, nonprofit capacity, and the per capita income of the local area. The changes went into effect on June 1.

Speaking at a House Oversight Committee hearing on California’s wildfire risk in Simi Valley, California official Mike Ghilarducci, head of that state’s Office of Emergency Services, testified that under FEMA’s new guidelines, “States, such as California, with large and extremely diverse populations will essentially be penalized as there will be an assumption the state has the fiscal capacity to handle the impacts of the events with its own resources.”

That echoes comments the state submitted in October 2016, after the regulation was first proposed, that factors like taxable and per capita income “greatly reflect the success of a few lucrative industries in California, and do not directly represent the financial capacity of the state.”

Survivors of high-profile disasters in recent years, such as last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County, California, would likely not have been eligible for federal assistance under the new criteria, according to California’s calculations.

In a statement to McClatchy, FEMA said the regulatory changes are part of an effort to meet requirements in a 2013 law aimed at improving FEMA’s disaster recovery programs for individuals. “The intent of the final rule is to provide more objective criteria, clarify the threshold for eligibility and speed the declaration process,” the statement said.

The initial draft rule, requiring a state’s finances to be taken into account, was proposed during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

The proposal was vociferously opposed emergency management officials in Washington, California, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Florida and Connecticut, among others.

In written comments submitted to FEMA in October 2016, Alysha Kaplan of the Washington State Emergency Management Division argued the proposed regulation would be “punitive towards states that had a vibrant economic picture pre-disaster.”

Kaplan wrote that factoring in taxable private income without also including states’ revenue commitments and obligations “is a completely one-sided assessment of state capacity geared towards limiting disaster assistance. “

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., decried the continued “reliance on county-wide data and the damage concentration as factors to determine eligibility,” contending it created a disadvantage for small and rural communities in geographically diverse counties.

Ghilarducci made a similar argument in his written statement submitted to Congress on Tuesday. Likewise, he pointed out that nonprofit organizations may not be able to help because they are “often funded by monetary donations and other inconsistent sources.”

Officials worry that the residents most likely to be affected by the new criteria are those in rural communities, like the town of Paradise in California that was destroyed by the Camp Fire, who tend to need the federal assistance most.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.